Well-Being Programs, Voluntary Benefits Help Stressed Employees Cope

Two studies show how employee benefits support emotional and financial resilience

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS July 23, 2020

Employers are investing more of their benefits budgets in well-being programs and voluntary benefits offerings to help alleviate employees' financial and emotional stress, and they expect to continue doing so, two recent surveys show.

Supporting Financial Well-Being

According to results from HR advisory firm Buck's 2020 Financial Wellbeing and Voluntary Benefits Survey, 40 percent of employers polled say "addressing financial stress" is a top reason for increasing benefits options that employees can select. When Buck completed a similar survey in 2017, only 16 percent of companies said the same.

Results of the survey, conducted from late 2019 through February 2020, were released July 21. Responses were received from 164 organizations representing a broad range of industries with 500 or more full-time employees.

"Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, companies were deeply aware of the financial stress many Americans struggle with every day," said Tom Kelly, principal and voluntary benefits leader in Buck's health practice. "Hourly and Millennial workers are seen to be most in need, and we're seeing a renewed focus on voluntary benefits as a way to move employees from financial instability to stability and ultimately to enhanced financial peace of mind."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Focus on Millennials

Millennial employees, born between 1980 and 1994, are the largest generation in the workforce and are top targets for financial support. The survey shows that even before the onset of COVID-19, benefit offerings were changing to appeal to this demographic:

  • 63 percent of employers were looking into adding benefits that support emerging employee needs, such as help with student loan debt or unexpected medical expenses.
  • The top new benefits companies plan to add include student loan guidance and refinancing (20 percent), student loan repayment (18 percent), hospital indemnity insurance (13 percent) and long-term-care insurance (11 percent).

Addressing Short-Term Needs

In addition to helping employees build retirement savings, employers are increasingly focused on helping workers meet short-term financial obligations, such as budgeting and saving (68 percent), credit card debt (66 percent), and unexpected medical expenses (59 percent).

Surveyed employers offered, on average, 10 programs that provide help addressing unexpected expenses, tackling debt and paycheck-to-paycheck issues, and securing legal services.

"Financial well-being is clearly a top priority for employers," said Brian Stitzel, U.S. health practice leader for Buck. "Now, as we navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy, it's even more critical. Workers who've had wages reduced, been furloughed or rehired after a period of unemployment may need extra support."

According to the survey, 80 percent of employers see direct savings by offering voluntary benefits, through employee attraction and retention, behavior change, and increased participation in cost-favorable plans.

COVID 19's Impact

Another recent survey further highlights the importance of a robust benefits program to help employees dealing with emotional and financial stress due to the pandemic.

Results from MetLife's 18th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study 2020 show that most employees (67 percent) are feeling more stressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially woman and low-income workers:

  • 72 percent of women feel more stressed compared to 61 percent of men.
  • 70 percent of employees who earn less than $50,000 annually feel more stressed compared to 62 percent of those earning more than $100,000.

The survey compared data from MetLife's 2010 and 2020 studies, the latter conducted through early April and based on interviews with 2,501 benefits decision-makers and 2,367 full-time employees at U.S. organizations with at least two employees. The survey showed:

  • 68 percent of employees in 2020 said that because of the benefits they receive at work, they worry less about unexpected health and financial issues, up from 59 percent in 2010.
  • 56 percent of employees said they are interested in a wider array of nonmedical benefits they can choose to purchase and pay for, up from 50 percent a decade earlier.

"The pandemic has dramatically impacted the importance of employee well-being," wrote Todd Katz, executive vice president for group benefits at MetLife. "In these extraordinary times, employers must realize their unique position to impact their employees' lives, and how benefits are central to keeping employees productive and healthy."

Particularly in times of crisis, good communication with employees is critical to helping them see how their benefits fit into their lives and mitigating stress, the MetLife report noted. "Ground benefits communications in how they are relevant to employees' lives, short term and long term, using specific examples, such as ones that illustrate benefits' usefulness in the current pandemic," the report recommended. For instance, highlight how counseling available through employee assistance programs can support mental and financial health.

Despite a dramatically changed world of work, "one thing remains constant," Katz noted. "Employers who understand their employees' experience and needs—and take action to help their employees manage the challenges they face inside and outside of work—will have a more engaged, productive and successful workforce."

Related SHRM Articles:

Planning 2021 Benefits Changes for the COVID-19 Era, SHRM Online, July 2020

Wellness Programs Step Up as Worksites Reopen, SHRM Online, July 2020

Wellness Programs Show Modest Benefits, as Efforts Pivot to 'Well-Being,' SHRM Online, June 2020

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